A group of volunteers from Melbourne who camped in Bairnsdale for sixteen days to feed the victims of East Gippsland bushfires has won the hearts of the locals with their "selfless service, generosity and compassion".
Members of the Sikh Volunteers Australia, a Melbourne-based not for profit, swung into action on the New Year’s Eve, as soon as they heard that people were being evacuated due to the fires spreading to residential areas in East Gippsland.
“They called me at eight o’clock in the night, they were already on the road bringing some hot food down and wanting to know where to go. They were at the refuge centre by 10 o’clock where we had the evacuated communities. They served right through to quite late that night,” Leanne Jennings, CEO of Bairnsdale Neighbourhood told SBS Punjabi.
The volunteers were serving anywhere between 800 to one thousand meals a day at the peak of the Victorian bushfires in the first week of January, when thousands of people were evacuated.
“This was a lot of meals for our community and certainly that was helping the people that were there – giving them that nice, healthy alternative of vegetarian food but it was also the kindness of everybody as well, the understanding and the compassion that was showed by the crew,” Ms Jennings added.
Manpreet Singh of SVA said during their time in the area, the volunteers have built a life-long bond with some locals.
“We hadn’t actually planned to stay there for so long. It’s the love of the people there that made us continue our work there. We had never worked with the people from the countryside before but now I think, the relationships we have built during this time will last forever,” he told SBS Punjabi.
The volunteers wound up their free-food van at Bainsdale Oval last Tuesday after working tirelessly for sixteen days, cooking and serving vegetarian food, that required the small team to wake up as early as 4:30 every morning and work right through late into the night.
While there were some rotating volunteers, each working for one or two days, Mr Singh and the main chef in the team Sukhwinder Kaur remained in Bairnsdale throughout the bushfire crisis in East Gippsland.
Ms Kaur even had to cancel her first trip to her hometown in India in over ten years, to see her sister who is in a coma after suffering a stroke. She took leave from her day job at Australia post to cook for the bushfire victims.
“What good are we if we can’t stand by our fellow countrymen in the hour of need and lend a helping hand?” quips Mr Singh when asked how the team managed to take time off their jobs.
Ms Jennings of Bairnsdale Neighbourhood House said they could send out many meals to other communities affected by bushfires as well.
“It was a big effort on a lot of people’s behalf. We had a van and we have been taking good out to the isolated communities and they also helped with that. We froze down some of the meals. We had some communities that had dietary issues. That was good to be able to send out meals that were fully vegetarian,” she said.
While some people may have been surprised to see these volunteers camping out to help people for over two weeks, Ms Jennings said she fully understood the spirit behind this.
“Actually, I went to Punjab a year ago and I stayed with a family in Bathinda. There I saw the generosity of the Punjabi and the Sikh community have in their own country,” she said. “That generosity that’s there in Punjab is now here in Australia.”